No Youth Worker Is an Island
Ridge Burns and Pam Campbell
Youth ministry exists because of the perception that youth workers are able to impact the lives of students. Our task is to challenge students to bring their behavior, lifestyle, and commitment in line with the attitude of Christ. We are daily exploring ways to influence students. But I wonder how many of us consider how students are influencing and impacting our lives.
I think it’s time for those of us in youth ministry to take a close look at how students influence our lives. I’m willing to admit that there are three major areas where my life is greatly impacted by kids: affirmation, loyalty, and space.
I expect affirmation from kids. My ego is fragile, so I need them to tell me how much they like me. As I look at the shelves in my office, I see some examples of how important such affirmation is to me. On one shelf is a craft made by a student at summer camp. On another shelf is a bracelet from Mexico and a little Canadian flag – “thank-you” souvenirs from mission trips. Those items remind me of the importance I place on affirmation from students.
I also expect loyalty. No, I don’t tell students not to go to other youth groups. But I get very disappointed, for example, when a student goes with another group on a retreat. I want him or her to say, “No, I already belong to a youth group, and we’re doing something else that weekend.” Maybe instead of commitment cards, handshakes, and hugs, I ought to have my youth group tattooed.
I also need my own space. I want students to be close to me, but I want to set boundaries on those relationships. I want to be able to maintain a certain distance from students. I don’t really want a student to know my daily schedule because I’m afraid he or she will limit my flexibility. I want the right to say no to students simply because they’re inconveniencing me.
It scares me a little to see how badly I want affirmation and to what lengths I will go to hear students applaud. I don’t like feeling jealous of other youth pastors who are ministering to my kids, but I have a hard time making those feelings go away. And my need for space sometimes gets distorted because I over commit myself. As a result, individual kids get shortchanged.
Kids influence me both positively and negatively. Yet, all these influences can work for good in my life. And the kinds of kids I talk about in this chapter have shaped my ministry and my effectiveness as a youth pastor.
I have always been bothered and troubled by kids who liked me more than I liked them. You know, the kids who come to your youth group and try to build relationships with everyone else, but for some reason they can’t quite build those relationships. So they come to you because, after all, you are paid to talk to them. They want a ride home, they want to sit next to you on the bus, they want to eat lunch with you at the retreat. They dominate your time and prevent you from getting to know other kids with whom you really want and need to build relationships.
Clingers have always been hard for me. I’ve been rude and cold to them. I haven’t been the kind of youth pastor that God has called me to be. If God has called me to be the youth pastor at the church, I want to have a ministry with all of the kids. But Clingers are very difficult for me to minister to.
I had just finished a long day – a breakfast Bible study with kids before school, a campus visit, and a ballgame after school. Now it was time for our regular youth meeting on Wednesday night. As the time came for students to arrive, the first person in the door was Rick.
Rick was a Clinger who loved to spend time with me, and I really needed to spend more time with him. But he was a hard kid with a lot of problems – a bad family situation, a bad academic record in school, low ranking in the popularity poll. Rick had no place else to go to get loved and cared for except the church, and as the youth pastor, I knew that.
Still, I sure had a hard time loving him and spending time with him because it seemed that he would never let me go. He was always by my side, always standing with me, always right next to me.
As the meeting door swung closed, Rick rushed over to tell me a problem that he told me about last week and to ask for more advice on how to solve it. After I talked briefly with him, other kids arrived and I began the meeting.
Then, during one of the games, Rick came over and told me about the same problem. By this time I was getting irritated and just wanted to enjoy the rest of the kids in the youth group.
After the youth meeting, of course Rick didn’t have a ride home. So I ended up sitting in his driveway (as I had for the last four or five weeks), hearing about his same problems over and over again. All I could think about was how he was dominating my time and I wished I was with someone else.
I have big problems with Clingers. I admit that down deep in my spirit, while he was pouring out his heart, I wanted to be anywhere else but listening to this guy.
So How Do I Deal with Clingers?
First, I try to express compassion to all kids in my youth ministry. My heart needs to be broken for these kids that cling and overload me with their needs. I need to care for them. With Rick, I realized I needed to spend some time with him and that he really was a lost sheep.
Second, I’ve learned to confront Clingers. In Rick’s case, I needed to talk him about the way he was dominating my time and preventing other kids with needs from spending time with me. In fact, I got together with Rick after school one day and told him that I felt we had a problem. I explained that he was taking up a lot of my time and was not allowing other kids to talk to me one-on-one. I asked him if he could see it as part of his ministry to allow others access to me. To my surprise, Rick viewed that as a very positive idea and realized he could allow other kids a little more space.
The third thing I need to do is schedule a regular time to meet with Clingers. When I set up regular meetings with Rick, he realized that I was not just abandoning him, but that I was offering him an opportunity to have some personal time with me. As we met on a weekly basis, I began to see that Rick had some needs that I could not fulfill, so I referred him to one of our associate staff people in the counseling area. This suggestion seemed to satisfy Rick’s needs.
The fourth thing I’ve learned from Clingers is that they really like me and see something in me that they think can really help them. Rick’s particular circumstance allowed him to find the love and help he was seeking. His heart was soft, and he viewed me as a person who could help him. That realization helped me to see him positively.
I admit it. I like Winners better than Losers. I like kids who are positive and athletic, who are leaders on campus, who reach their potential, and who come from good families. I have a natural inclination toward them. I don’t have to work at liking kids that win.
Charlie and Carol were Winners. Charlie was kind of a floppy, funny soccer goalie who wasn’t the best at what he did, but he came from a good family and wanted to do great things for God. Carol was a cheerleader who had the lead in the school musical and led worship at our church. Charlie and Carol will probably succeed at whatever they do.
I like people like that. In fact, I like them so much that it causes some problems for kids who don’t win. When I play favorites, it prevents kids who are Losers from getting close to me. I recognize that my high regard for Winners speaks louder than my care for people who don’t win.
So How Do I Deal with Winners?
First, I must admit that it’s easy to work with Winners. I know that when I give projects to students with good self-esteem and positive attitudes, those students will turn those projects into reality with little or no help from me. They have the self-discipline and self-motivation to work.
Second, I realize that Winners make me look good. I can write books, give seminars, and talk to people about the Winners to whom I’ve ministered – all because these students make me look good as a youth pastor. I gravitate toward Winners so I can feed my own ego. But I also gravitate toward Winners because they are the trophies of my ministry that I share with others.
Third, I’ve come to realize that it’s the Winners who can fake me out. The kids who are struggling with problems are usually up front with me. They tell me exactly what’s going on with their lives. I don’t have to go through any smoke screens in order to find out what their real needs are. But many times I discover later on in life that the Winners were fooling me during my entire ministry with them.
This happened with one student whom I really believed in (and held up as an example of sexual purity). Ten years after my ministry with her, I found out that she was as promiscuous as some of the other kids in the youth group. However, she had this winning attitude about her that prevented me seeing through her protective shell. I found out that Winners are sometimes the hardest kids to reach for Christ because they can get things done without the strength of God.
For me, the way to work with Winners is to put them in nonWinner roles. For example, Jeff was the president of his high school student body. He had a lot of influence on campus, and his opinion carried a lot of weight in the youth group. When it came time to select the students who would lead our next mission trip, naturally Jeff’s name surfaced to the top.
The selection of student leadership was done not by election, but by the students who led the previous year’s mission trip. Even though Jeff would have been a good leader, the consensus was that he was already in a lot of leadership roles and that he needed to learn how to be a follower.
Jeff really struggled with that decision, and at first, he determined not to go on the trip. But when he found out his friends were going (as well as some other people with whom he wanted to spend time), he decided to go on the trip anyway. That experience as a follower caused him to learn some things about himself that he wouldn’t have learned had he been a trip leader. I’ve learned to put Winners like Jeff in situations where they have the potential to be Losers, and where they have to draw their strength from God instead of from their own natural resources.
I am not a naturally empathic person. I don’t find myself drawn to students who have problems. If I have a choice between making an appointment with a kid who is working on a project and a hurting kid who wants to talk about a problem, I’ll pick the first kid every time. I feel more equipped to handle projects and tasks than kids who need help on a long-term basis.
My natural tendency is to try to rescue kids, fix their problems, and get them back on the road to tasks as soon as I can. That’s how I’m wired, and often that becomes a problem for me. Kids who are losing and struggling in life find it difficult to relate to my personality. They don’t usually seek me out.
A kid once came up to me and said, “Ridge, for the two years that I’ve known you, I’ve carried this problem. But I felt like you were only interested in the kids who really wanted to accomplish something for God. I’m not whole, so I can’t accomplish anything for God.” What an indictment on how I relate to kids!
Brian was one such kid. He was insecure and a terrible student. He was also from a divorced family and didn’t relate very well to his stepfather. His mom was frustrated and didn’t know what to do. I got together with Brian and his family every week. Brian, his stepfather, and his mom talked over simple problems like cleaning his room, doing his homework, going to school, getting a job. But for some reason, Brian couldn’t get through the basics of daily life and become a functioning member of his family. In fact, his mom’s highest goal for Brian was simply to get him to graduate from high school. So I made a commitment to help Brian graduate.
I didn’t really like Brian. He went on a mission trip with us and for some reason he showed up at the last training meeting with his head shaved, thinking it showed his commitment to God and to the group. But all it did was make him look silly, so he wore a bandana for the first few days of the mission trip until he got comfortable with his new appearance. Brian was a troubled kid, and he had difficulty relating to me. When I talked with Brian, I found myself struggling with just trying to be a friend to him.
So How Do I Deal with Losers?
First of all, I admit I need some people in my life who don’t fit into my stereotype of what winning is all about. Kids who aren’t winning in life, who have habits of making wrong decisions, help balance my life. I would be unbalanced if God didn’t give me a ministry to kids who constantly make wrong choices.
Second, Losers allow me to see God’s power. One of the ways I was able to help Brian become more of a Winner was by challenging him in an area that bothered me and other students. Brian was perpetually late for our mission trip training sessions. After a while, his tardiness became an issue with the rest of the students in training. We’ve got enough self-discipline to get here on time, they thought, so how come Brian can’t do the same?
I gave Brian a last warning about being late. Then I put him in charge of timekeeping on the entire mission trip. He was responsible for waking students and making sure they arrived on time at their assigned work sites. He essentially became in charge of the area where he was weakest.
Students resented Brian because he was always late, but when they discovered he could encourage them to be on time, he became a Winner. Sometimes the very issues that cause kids to be Losers can be used to help them become more in tune with what God has for them to do.
Do you know where Brian is today? He is ministering in the Midwest full-time, on fire for God, doing great things for Him. I had very little to do with it. Another sponsor in our church took Brian under his wing, saw his potential, and listened to his problems.
I look at Brian ministering for God, and I cannot believe it. When I talk about kids who are Losers, I’m not talking about kids who have hurts in their lives and then move on. I’m talking about kids who constantly make wrong choices. They don’t have a support structure, but when God rearranges their lives, it’s unbelievable to watch the joy that takes place.
Have you ever had a kid leave your youth group and start attending another youth group? Have you ever had a student come to your office and say, “I’m no longer going to be part of your ministry because I’ve decided that the youth group down the street is a little bit better”?
Carl left my youth ministry. Carl was a great student and the star quarterback of the high school football team. In fact, he was the number-one quarterback in the state. But this popular kid decided he would rather go to another youth group in town. When Carl left my youth group, he didn’t tell me he was leaving. I got the news that he had left at the local youth pastors’ meeting when another youth pastor came to me and said, “How do you feel about Carl coming to my youth group?”
My first reaction was embarrassment. I was embarrassed that I did not have the charismatic leadership to keep this prize kid in my youth group. (Notice how my bias toward Winners was affecting me again.) The fact that I couldn’t keep Carl seemed to indicate that I was an ineffective leader. I was also angry that Carl would dare go somewhere else for ministry. I found myself gossiping about Carl and his attitudes toward our youth group.
“Oh, he didn’t give us a fair chance. He never gave us enough time. He was never really committed anyway.”
But what I was really doing was trying to satisfy my own ego needs by suggesting that he didn’t leave because of me. Actually, Carl left because his friends attended another church. He didn’t have time to make new friendships, so he simply wanted to build spiritual relationships with the friends he was already hanging out with at school. Carl didn’t leave because he didn’t like me; he left because he liked his friends, and he wanted to worship and praise the Lord with them.
So How Do I Deal with Defectors?
When a kid leaves my youth group for another one, I am able to handle it a little bit better now. I first think about and then write out the reasons why the student left. By simply evaluating the student’s reasons, I can accept his or her departure without taking it so personally.
Another thing I do is recognize that some kids leave the youth group because my ministry has somehow been ineffective. Sometimes I have a tendency to see only what I want to see in my ministry. But when a kid defects, I am forced to examine my ministry for any gaping holes. For example, some kids may leave the youth group because they aren’t being ministered to. This painful situation may be one way that God is shouting that I need to improve my ministry.
This was certainly the case for me in terms of my evangelistic approach. Some kids in one of my youth groups were real evangelists and wanted to see kids come to know Christ. But I was so discipleship-oriented that these kids did not feel fulfilled in my youth group. When they left the group, I took it personally. I realized later that God was speaking to me through their action and that I needed to open up a new area of ministry in my youth group.
I run a youth missions organization. My job is to get kids involved in ministry in the inner city. I am highly committed to providing kids with hands-on ministry experience. Yet I find that sometimes high school kids from my church carry their parents’ agenda about what kinds of missions I should be involved with.
Beth invited me over for dinner one night. She said her parents wanted me to meet their family and spend a little time just talking together. It seemed like a nonthreatening situation. Little did I know that after dinner I would have to sit through two hours of slides showing Beth’s summer experience with a teen mission organization.
As the evening progressed, Beth’s parents made it clear that they felt I should direct kids toward missions organizations rather than try to provide a missions experience through our own programs at the church. In other words, Beth’s parents had invited me over to their house simply to give me their opinions.
After this evening, I became uneasy with Beth. I did not want get together with her. I questioned and second-guessed everything she said to me to see if there were any hidden agendas.
At the same time, I realized that Beth evidently did have a great experience in the Philippines that summer. The things that took place in her life were the things I wanted to take place in every kid’s life in our youth group. But the way that Beth’s parents communicated that experience made me really angry toward their daughter. I could have handled the situation differently, but unfortunately I didn’t.
So How Do I Deal with Agenda Carriers?
First of all, I’ve learned to separate the kid from the agenda the parents are addressing. Beth was a wonderful girl, and I could have really used her help in some areas of the youth ministry. Instead, I let my feelings get in the way.
Second, I talk to the student about his or her own feelings. Students shouldn’t feel caught in the middle between me and their parents. Beth is not the only person in 15 years of ministry who has carried the mail for her parents. Still, each time this kind of conflict happens, I have trouble learning my lesson.
Third, I try to use the student’s strengths to enhance my ministry. It’s true that I struggled with Beth’s tunnel vision, her inability to accept other types of mission experiences as valid. However, I knew she was missions-minded and had some skills that I really wanted to use in our youth group. Therefore, I involved Beth in running our missions conference, operating the soup kitchen, and organizing other programs. I cared about her involvement in missions, but I didn’t have to be sold on the particular organization in which she was involved.
Fourth, I make sure I don’t gather an army against the student. It would have been very easy to pit students who had equally rewarding missions experiences against Beth to invalidate or lessen the importance of her experience.
Some kids are just difficult to minister to. They take a lot of work, effort, and time. They’re not people with problems; they’re just kids with special needs who require a lot of time. Lately I’ve come into contact with many kids who learn differently, who are dyslexic, or who participate in some kind of learning deficiency program.
Greg was in a wheelchair and required special attention for everything. On missions trips we had to help him in and out of the bathroom and showers. We had to rent special vehicles. It was difficult and time-consuming, but watching Greg minister to others was one of the greatest joys of my ministry.
So How Do I Deal with Burdensome Kids?
Some of the greatest rewards in ministry take the greatest amount of time. Kids who have special needs sometimes slow your ministry down to a pace where students can recognize what serving others is all about. When I think back on Greg, I think God used him to teach me and the youth group this lesson in servanthood.
Not long ago, I saw Greg in line at the Splash Mountain at Disneyland. There he was in his wheelchair, still looking the same after eight years. When I went over to say “Hi,” Greg said, “Thank you for the time that was invested and for the time you spent with me.”
I’ve come to realize that kids who have special needs are placed in my life by God for a reason. They round out my youth program and, perhaps, make me more sensitive to the needs of others. Many times those of us in fast-paced youth ministries need to be slowed down, and those kids who have special needs help us regain our perspective.
Second, I can build a team of students who care about Burdensome Kids. In this way I don’t feel solely responsible. I need to delegate responsibility to kids who really want to help and share. Mark was one of those kids who wanted to help, so he took Greg under his wing. As a result of Mark’s caring, he and Greg developed a deep friendship.
Third, I let the kid with a special need exercise leadership every once in a while. I remember the day Greg led a Bible study on one of our mission trips. From the broader platform of his wheelchair, he challenged the other kids to look at themselves in ways that I could not have done. For many kids, that Bible study was probably the most powerful experience of the entire trip.
I really enjoy the personalities of some kids. I like kids who are funny and have energy, even if they are discipline problems. If they’re fun to be around, I find myself really drawn to them. They don’t have to be Winners, valedictorians, or all-star athletes; they can just be fun kids.
Ken was one of those kids. Even though he played football, he really wasn’t all that good. (His team sure wasn’t very good!) But Ken was just a good guy to be around, and he loved to play tricks on people. I found myself spending a lot of time with him. I liked being around Ken, but it became a problem when I began to overlook some of his faults. Oh, he’d swear a little bit and get drunk a little bit on Friday nights. I found myself not talking to him about Jesus like I would with any other kid because I liked him, and he could reject what I shared in such a way that it was just funny.
Not only did I overlook his faults, but I began to show favoritism. Instead of getting involved with some of the kids who really needed my attention, I found myself drawn to Ken to hear his latest episode. Kids began to notice how much attention I gave Ken, so they began to act like him to get a share of my attention.
I also adopted another bad characteristic. I began using Ken and other kids I liked as shields against Clingers and Losers. By filling up my time with these kids that I liked, I had no time for the undesirable ones.
So How Do I Deal with Natural Attractors?
First of all, I’ve come to understand that ministry is serious business and, that sometimes, in order to accomplish ministry, I must deny myself the right of being with people I am naturally attracted to.
Second, I try to be fairer to all students by admitting to myself that I am naturally drawn to some personality types more than others. At one church, I made a list of students in my youth group, ranking them in three categories: kids I really liked, kids I sort of liked, and kids I didn’t like at all. Then I tried to think of ways I could reduce those distinctions.
Finally, I’ve noticed that when I am drawn to certain students, I tend to demand less from them. But just the opposite should be true. One way I’ve dealt with this problem is by writing behavioral objectives for those kids to whom I am particularly drawn. Written objectives help me be more conscious of the growth I want for those kids.
I’ve noticed that kids do not have much loyalty these days. They drift from youth group to youth group depending on who has the best program and social events. I’ve taken polls on retreats and found out that half the kids go to other churches. They just happened to like the ski trip I planned better than their youth group’s bowling night.
There is little or no evangelism taking place when kids bring their other Christian friends to social activities. These outsiders come to the activity to share in the fun but don’t have anything to do with the regular times of group fellowship. That bothers me, but not as much as when I find out my kids are attending another youth pastor’s summer camp or winter retreat.
This lack of loyalty and commitment not only makes me angry and hurt, but it breeds competition in my spirit. I feel less inclined to cooperate with churches where my kids are involved in their youth events. When I find out that another youth pastor may have something better than what I have, sometimes I display some very un-Christian attitudes.
So How Do I Deal with Disloyal Kids?
One of the ways that I have tried to deal with this issue is to cooperate in community-wide events involving several youth groups from the area. Not only do these large events allow my kids to mix with kids in other youth groups, but they force me to be in contact with the other youth pastors with whom I sometimes feel competition. Usually I find that they have the same kinds of feelings and fears about me that I have about them. As we talk about our fears and common experiences, we are able to handle them much better.
“No Youth Worker is an Island”. Written by Ridge Burns and Pam Campbell.
“This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”